Strangled by success
For Sonya Hartnett, an international literary reputation has not delivered happiness, writes Rosemary Neill
SONYA Hartnett is feeling her age. Acutely. ‘‘ I am getting old: I am approaching 40,’’ she confides with a world- weary air. ‘‘ I built my career on being young and now I ain’t. It just seemed to happen so fast.’’ Though she is a gen- Xer with a big literary reputation, Hartnett can sound more like a worn- out octogenarian. ‘‘ If I sound bumbling, it’s because I am bumbling,’’ the award- winning writer of children’s and adult fiction declares, explaining that this is the first time she has spoken to a journalist about her latest novel, The Ghost’s Child.
She says it’s also the first time she has answered questions about her candidly erotic but critically mauled novel, Landscape with Animals. This story of an intense, illicit affair was published last year under a pseudonym. But Hartnett’s real identity was soon uncovered and the dirty book by the well- known children’s author became a cause celebre — and the subject of much salacious gossip — in and outside literary circles ( more of which later).
In contrast, The Ghost’s Child is a chaste, romantic fable aimed at teen and adult readers: a fractured fairytale about an engulfing yet impossible love between an ardent young woman from a privileged background and a feral young man with an affinity for sea birds and the ocean.
Like Landscape with Animals, it is an elegy for lost love and a celebration of obsessive love. ‘‘ I guess I have been stuck on the subject of love over the past couple of years because I find it surprisingly interesting once I get started,’’ Hartnett says. It’s a theme she hadn’t looked at in her earlier novels and, as she puts it, ‘‘ I guess you get a little bit addicted to it’’.
The Ghost’s Child is less edgy and dark than many of Hartnett’s earlier works, which have dealt with themes as troubling as murder, incest, child abduction and family violence. ‘‘ I think I am mellowing a little in my old age,’’ she says.
This 39- year- old writer’s exaggerated sense of ageing stems from the fact that her first novel, Trouble All the Way, was published when she was 15. While many novelists spend their 30s as emerging writers, by the time Hartnett turned 30 she was virtually a veteran.
According to Hartnett, The Ghost’s Child followed a long period of ‘‘ oppression’’ when she thought about giving up writing. ‘‘ I could [ still] give it up now,’’ she says, the deflated, worldweary tone returning, ‘‘ but I think that in the last couple of years I have become more accepting of my fate and I know this is what I will do for the rest of my life. I know that I sound extremely spoiled and vile when I complain because there are certainly a lot more difficult ways to earn a living . . . I am somebody for whom the grass is always greener.’’
It’s true many writers can spend entire careers attempting to win the kind of prizes and critical plaudits she has tucked under her belt. In 2003, Hartnett’s best- known adult novel, Of a Boy, took out a Commonwealth Writers Prize, The Age book of the year award and was short- listed for the Miles Franklin.
Two of her novels ( Surrender and The Silver Donkey ) have won prizes, including the main fiction prize, at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards and two have snared the Children’s Book Council book of the year gongs. In 2002, another novel, Thursday’s Child , won The Guardian ’ s children’s fiction prize, lifting the Australian’s profile in Britain.
Today, Hartnett’s books are published in Britain, the US, Canada, Germany and Italy. London’s The Sunday Times has compared her with John Steinbeck, while Australian critic Peter Craven calls her ‘‘ the finest Australian writer of her generation’’ and ‘‘ a novelist of genius’’.
‘‘ That’s not true!’’ she says sharply of the genius compliment. She explains she has been engaged in a long struggle to ‘‘ make peace with my destiny’’; with the idea that ‘‘ I would never be great at what I did. I would never have great [ commercial] success. I consider myself a journeyman writer. I’m good but I am not great. All these things I have just become resigned to. It’s better to be all right than to be crappy. Better to have moderate [ commercial] success than have no [ literary] success.’’
Here again, it’s hard to understand Hartnett’s despondency. Her publisher, Penguin, says her combined sales are approaching 250,000. Across 16 novels, this makes her one of the country’s most consistently strong- selling literary authors.
As metaphorically rich as an epic poem, her new novel is about the nature of love and loss, and learning how to rise above grief. As she puts it: ‘‘ Love can be great, but not very often. People will die for love, kill for love and in fact draw the line nowhere for love.’’
She describes her female protagonist, Maddy, as someone who loves abnormally, and Maddy’s lover, Feather, as fey and indecisive. ‘‘ In real life that kind of character might drive me out of my mind,’’ she jokes.
Feral males such as Feather have featured in her novels before. ‘‘ I know what I like about feral children,’’ she volunteers cheerily. ‘‘ I wanted to be one. I would still like to be one. I would have liked to have been brought up by wolves or something like that.’’
Asked if The Ghost’s Child is in any way autobiographical, she says: ‘‘ Like many people, I have loved and lost, and loved and gained, and all that sort of stuff.’’
She reveals Landscape with Animals was also based on an intimate relationship she once had but drew on many other experiences of love, ‘‘ because life isn’t a work of art and that is what I strove to produce, a work of art’’.
This erotic novel, depicting an intense but doomed affair between a woman who is unattached and a man who isn’t, was published under the pseudonym Cameron S. Redfern. The reason, Hartnett says, is that she didn’t want it to mistakenly end up on children’s bookshelves in libraries and bookshops, next to her other works.
Two weeks after Landscape was published, Hartnett’s identity was revealed. The spectacle of a kids lit queen writing erotica — some called it porn — ensured that Landscape became the first Hartnett novel to make the news pages and the gossip columns. The writer was philosophical about her cover being blown: ‘‘ I had no doubt it would come out. I didn’t think it would come out as fast as it did.’’
A notorious review of Landscape by her erstwhile champion, Craven, provoked a separate debate about sexually explicit writing by women and alleged double standards. Craven wrote an excoriating critique, concluding that Landscape was a ‘‘ tawdry little crotch tickler’’ and an ‘‘ indigestible hairball of spunk and spite’’. Novelist Marion Halligan leapt to Hartnett’s defence, taking Craven’s demolition job as evidence that erotica by women was still subjected to double standards by male reviewers.
Still wounded, Hartnett says of Craven’s review: ‘‘ What can you do, laugh it off? Laugh and laugh and laugh ’ til I top myself? You have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry, I suppose. [ Based on that review] I don’t think Peter hates this book as much as he hates me.’’
I point out that in his review, Craven also said she was the best Australian writer of her generation. She retorts that ‘‘ he was giving me a last cigarette before he shot me down. I guess it consoled me to know it was a personal attack as much as it was an attack on the book because I can take it but my work can’t.’’
In his review Craven claimed Landscape could be imagined as ‘‘ some sort of gesture of revenge’’ against the philandering male character. Hartnett says: ‘‘ That was very wrong. I think if you read that book there is no sense of viciousness towards the man.’’ Minutes later, she insists she and Craven are still friends; that she has invited him to the launch of The Ghost’s Child.
Hartnett is one of few authors who can segue smoothly into adult and back to young adult fiction again. She began writing The Ghost’s Child for 13- year- olds, hit a wall and put it aside for a year. It evolved into a novel aimed at teenagers and adults. ‘‘ Once I started it again, it was a pretty well- behaved book,’’ she says with a laugh.
Her disillusionment with writing reflected her frustration at seeing average books, such as The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Potter series, being outrageously overpromoted. ‘‘ The celebration of the mediocre we have in this country is dispiriting,’’ she says. She objects to ‘‘ this sort of rabid support of Harry Potter to the exclusion of so many other good books for children. It was fine for a couple of years until it crossed the line and became really sickening and stupid.’’
Having complained in the past about being boxed in as a young adult author, she says her higher profile today reflects her recent overseas success. Single and pushing 40, she can live off her writing, the result, mostly, of being published internationally. Still, she sometimes asks herself if she erred in not marrying, not having children, though she was never convinced that life was for her: ‘‘ The feral kid in me says marriage and children are for other people.’’ Still, she admits, ‘‘ Sometimes, I ask: ‘ Have I completely messed up my life?’ ’’
A devotee of gardening and animals, she lives alone in a quiet suburb of Melbourne with a husky called Shilo and a kitten, Marcus. She writes a newspaper column called Tails of the City, about domesticated animals. Some are funny, but most are sad. ‘‘ As much as I can, I like to make them more light- hearted, though that is not my nature, that is not my way,’’ she chuckles.
Hartnett once told a journalist: ‘‘ I was born old and bitter.’’ She now says old is spot- on but bitter isn’t. ‘‘ I was born old and with my eyes open,’’ she decides, then changes her mind: ‘‘ Actually, I was born with the cord around my throat and blue, and that is how I’ve felt ever since.’’ The Ghost’s Child by Sonya Hartnett ( Viking, $ 24.95) is published on July 2.
I guess you get a little bit addicted to it’: Award- winning author Sonya Hartnett